Archive for the ‘Tutorials’ Category
Here’s a great exercise for journalism professors who are introducing their students to data-driven journalism. It provides a good opportunity to show them that they have to get over the common perception that data is unbiased — clean and clear. It gives instructors an opportunity to talk about the need to “interview” the data.
The assignment is deceptively simple: Have the students download the Census Bureau’s list of rural and urban counties and calculate the population density for the counties in your state.
That’s it. Tell them no more. Depending on where they get stuck, slowly reveal to them the clues they need to complete the project. What you may not be surprised to find is that too many college undergrads seem to be accustomed to following step-by-step instructions and too few know how to break down a problem into smaller, sequential pieces. This is the kind of critical thinking skills that they need to be good journalists. Or, as I like to say, think journalistically regardless of their eventual profession.
Helping Them Get Unstuck
Force your students to get a quick start. Don’t let them sit and stare at their computer screens for even a second. Agitate them in whatever way you need to make them feel like an asteroid is about to smash the earth to smithereens. They can’t solve the whole problem all at once, so what are the pieces of the problem hidden inside this big problem?
- Where can you find the Census list of rural and urban counties?
The answer — of course — is Google. So, there’s an opportunity to teach efficient search strategies.
Students will click around the Census site a bit trying to find what they want. Ask how skimmed and how many read every word on each page. A good opportunity to talk about the way people use information online.
You can help students find the data they need. And from there you can show them basic file-management and Excel techniques. Where does the file download on their computer? What’s the difference between a .csv and a .xlsx file?
With the data open in Excel, they’ll need to sort to filter out just their state. But now what? Ask the students what they think each of the columns represent. What does it mean that something has a POP_UA of 10791 and a STATE of 37?
Once they figure that out, they may note that the data includes some pre-calculated population density. But it’s not the information you asked them to find, so they’ll have to calculate population density — a commonly-needed, very simple journalism math equation.
This gives you a chance to explain that numbers are only meaningful in relation to other numbers. And how to do basic calculations in Excel.
The students will do the math correctly, but they won’t get answers that make any sense. A chance for you to talk with them about how data still has to pass the sniff test. Why doesn’t the data make sense? They can find the answer back on the Census website.
Once they’ve made the correct calculations (how many meters are in a mile anyway?), you can talk with them about how you still need to find the story in the data. Even though their calculations have added value to the data — essentially refining raw ore — mere presentation is of marginal value.
You can top off the conversation by coming back to language, and that journalistic aspiration for precision and objectivity. What does “rural” mean anyway? What does the dictionary say? Is it an abstract concept or something you can measure? How (many different ways) does the Census measure it? How is it different than the USDA’s definition? Which is better? Why?
This is a project that could take several weeks as a module in a college class, or as a MOOC or quick conference or newsroom workshop. Its strength is its scope and flexibility. Just like a good journalist.
As part of the Knight News Challenge grant for OpenBlock Rural, I’d like to build capacity of North Carolina journalism students to contribute to the application’s code. It’s not the main point of the project, but it’s an element that will help the longterm sustainability of the community — both the OpenBlock community and the rural communities we hope to serve.
But building that capacity from scratch is no short task. As I’ve begun to map out a class or workshop on it, I was reminded of a book that I read to my kids.
- If you’d like to learn how to use OpenBlock, you need to know Django …
- If you want to work with Django, you’re going to need to understand how to edit files with nano or some other text editor, and you’ll need to know PostgreSQL, and you’ll need to know some Python …
- If you want to use Python in any meaningful way, you’re going to need to install some Python packages, or modules …
- If you want to install Python packages, you have to know how Python works on your computer’s operating system (Mac, Windows, and Unix) …
- If you want to know how Python works on your system, you have to be comfortable using the command line of Windows or Unix. You need to be able to list directory contents, change directories, read and change file permissions, manage Linux users, download and decompress files using gunzip and tar commands.
- … and you’ll need to know HTML and CSS
The paradox of teaching these things to students is that as the user interfaces of Web applications and computers get easier, and their use becomes more ubiquitous the proportion of students with the hacker ethic they need to approach projects like this is reduced. That’s not a dig on students. The better something works out of the box the less the need to tear them apart, fix them, improve them. It’s like me and my car. Wheels turn. Radio works. Doors open. I couldn’t care less how the gears actually shift or how the “snow” traction works.
But I hope we’re not just training college students to be users of technology. College journalism students need an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s not just about teaching the technology. It’s about cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit, a way of skeptical knowing, and a hacker ethic.
Making its rounds on Twitter recently has been a “fake” quote attributed to Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
Some people — most prominently Megan McArdle at The Atlantic — thought it just didn’t sound right.
The problem is that you can’t prove he didn’t say it. A couple of people have tried, and have come up with a good partial explanation. But disproving something you can’t see is nearly impossible. This is a great example of a problem often faced by reporters — a problem that’s becoming even more vexing with the development of social media. As it turns out, people say a lot of stuff that just isn’t true.
A quick Google search of the quote turns up more than 10,000 results — almost all from Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot or WordPress posts written since the death of Osama bin Laden. But as I try to teach my journalism students, popularity does not equal accuracy. Ten bad sources aren’t as useful as one good source. Google says that some date as far back as Feb. 1, 2001, but that may be a default date on the Tumblr micro-blogging platform. In any case, date-based search on Google is useless for this effort. (Similar searches on Bing and Technorati were also not effective.)
My favorite explanation, by tech writer Frederic Lardinois, points most of the quote to King’s 1963 book Strength to Love. He found that the one-sentence quote used on Twitter could also be found as part of a longer quote on other social media sites. Most of that quote — but not the first sentence — is directly from Strength to Love. But that first sentence remains a black swan. I can’t prove that King didn’t say it. But I can’t prove that he did. And I can’t figure out where or when in the contemporary digital folklore that the quote originated. As a recently popular book points out, just because you’ve never seen a black swan doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Europeans had only seen white swans. Until a black one showed up in Australia in 1697.
Taken as an isolated incident he harm from this misquote is pretty abstract. At worst it becomes George Washington’s cherry tree — a story that everyone hears, that has its accuracy questioned, but that cannot be disproved. It muddies our understanding of history and it contributes to a changing narrative that we tell about ourselves, our history and our heroes.
The problem in the era of social media is that these misquotes are rampant and pernicious. Fabricating the words of political nemeses has become an acceptable and common tactic. Check out the archive of fact-checking that Snopes.com has done on fake quotes attributed to a variety of political lightening rods from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton. There is a library of fake quotes and fake legislation that gets distributed via e-mail and social networks. They’re complete fiction. It’s bad enough that political leaders — from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton — make up stuff all the time and assert it as truth. But it’s as if we’ve suddenly corrupted the value of the First Amendment by acting as if the answer to bad speech is not less speech but more bad speech. Lies are no longer combated by the often difficult-to-ascertain truth, but by more easy-to-fabricate lies.
It’s possible that the person — and it was one person — who decided to “upgrade” the actual King quote with an additional line was unconsciously mashing up King with another speaker. There’s plenty of historical precedent for that practice. Or perhaps she just incorrectly remembered the real quote and didn’t look it up in the book before she posted it to her blog. That happens all the time. I swear my wife told me to get chicken at the store yesterday. She swears she wanted me to get fish.
This happens all the time, and double-checking things that we “know” is probably the hardest habit for my reporting students to acquire. Good reporters — like good scientists — don’t care so much about what you know as they do about how you know what you know. We want to see it. I teach my students that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” and I play for them a bit of Marvin Gaye — “believe half of what you see, some or none of what you hear.”
The real problem for our nation is the intentional lies that are spread — and spread in a very smart way that adds to the malice of the act. My favorite is the YouTube video that shows Obama talking about “my Muslim faith.” Here’s the clip…. and here’s the whole clip. The 12-second clip — both totally accurate and totally incomplete — has been viewed nearly a million times. The full clip has been seen nearly two million times. But how many looked for the second after watching the first?
With the advent of democratic media distribution anyone can report what they see and hear. But who will look at the world around them and wonder what is unseen? And who will take the time not just to doubt, but to check it out?
When I walk into the classroom to teach my introductory news writing students at UNC, I remind myself that I’m giving a map to people who have always driven sports cars, but never out of their neighborhood.
Some of the students are younger than Mosaic, and throughout their lives, their access to information technology has outpaced their understanding of it.
The answer to the question of “What is news?” for many of them is “Whatever my friends share on Facebook.” And that means popularity — and for many of them it’s popularity among a narrow subset of people who look, act and see the world similarly — trumps all the traditional news values of impact, proximity, prominence, timeliness, emotional appeal, oddity and conflict.
But rather than try to replace one with the other, I’m trying a technique that I hope will use their familiarity with social media to get them to think more about their audience. Try the following and let me know how it works for you, too.
1. Have the students organize their Facebook friends into various lists, using traditional news values. So, for example, students might organize their friends by geography, share experiences, relationship status, number of friends they have, frequency of posting, or a combination of those. Instructions for Creating a Facebook List
2. Throughout the semester, your students are already required to read the news. But this technique also asks them to share the stories they read with their friends on Facebook. Instructions for Sharing a Link on Facebook
3. The key is that they can’t share a link with ALL their friends. They have to pick no more than two lists with which they share each story. This gets the students thinking about how different audience value different information. Or how different audiences value the same information, but for different reasons. Instructions for Sharing Links With Specific Lists
4. Finally, with each link that a student posts she is required to “Say something about this link …” It doesn’t count if the annotation is merely a re-phrasing of the facts in the story. And it doesn’t count if the student merely writes about why she likes the story. The annotation must answer the question “So What?” for that particular list. The goal here is get students to change their belief that writing is about self-expression into a journalistic mindset in which writing is selfless expression.
Journalists have to give audiences what they want and need, and often must go to great lengths to explain to them why they need it. This isn’t paternalism. This is a service, and it’s the same one that attorneys and physicians and financial advisers provide. The choice remains in the customer’s hands. But we — as journalists — have a professional obligation to provide the best advice on the most relevant information possible.
Grading: You have two choices for grading this assignment. One option is to get a Facebook account and require that all of your students friend you and put you on every list they’ve created for the class. That way you’ll be able to see what they’re doing and use your own rubric to score their efforts. The other option is to have the students write a weekly reflection about their experiences sharing stories with their friends. What did they share with whom? How did they describe it? What didn’t they share? Why not? What responses did they get from their friends?
(For the sake of ease, you may consider creating a mock version of this assignment in which students simply write Word documents using imaginary friends, imaginary lists, imaginary stories or use an imaginary social network. But do not do that. It smacks of being phoney. And students — and journalists — hate phonies.